STEVE ROGERS: The Corruption Of An American Symbol

A deep dive into Marvel’s latest “Hydra Cap” development.

What if your political reality was a lie?

This has been the premise of Captain America: Steve Rogers for the last eleven months, wherein the infamous “Hail Hydra” reveal garnered mixed reactions and set the internet ablaze. Many fans were reasonably upset, while some took their disapproval too far as others defended the creative decisions, but often times the conversational disconnect stemmed from having read the actual story versus having only read stories about it. Yes, on both sides. This week’s Secret Empire #0 reveal is no different, yielding reductive headlines like “Marvel Reveals Captain America Was ALWAYS Evil” and equally misinformed summaries within, leaving long time fans of the character feeling understandably betrayed. After all, this is what author Nick Spencer had been saying was expressly not the case, and if headlines like these are to be believed, he’s an outright liar (he isn’t). As with most things, there’s a fair bit more nuance to be found here, and having recently caught up on the story myself, I thought now might be a good time to unpack it.

First and foremost, the premise. Before debating whether or not something works, is remotely necessary, or happens to be in poor taste, determining what it even is to begin with is a necessary starting point. The best way to do that would be to read the story – I’m going to try and give you a summary of the HYDRA business, but no one article can cover everything – and the story in question is at least fairly good. That doesn’t negate any strong negative feelings readers might have about it, and there’s plenty to be critiqued by way of Marvel editorial’s insistence that every event be built across three or more books, let alone the creative team’s penchant for overwrought exposition and oddly Archer-esque scene transitions that don’t match the book’s tone, but as a story about Steve Rogers the man and Captain America the symbol, it does a few things I might go as far as to call challenging. It’s an uncomfortable read, perhaps as it should be, and the idea can best be summed up via a quote from this week’s Secret Empire, as Steve Rogers’ long-gestating plan finally begins to unfold:

“He had always been a master strategist—but freed from compassion and mercy, this was his masterpiece.”

The “Hail Hydra” twist last May was contextualized in the issues that followed, revealing that Steve Rogers’ seemingly newfound allegiance to HYDRA was not new at all, but something stemming as far back as his childhood. However, this appeared to be a scheme put in place by HYDRA themselves using Kobik, a sentient Cosmic Cube, wherein reality was re-written so that Steve had always been a member of the nefarious organization. Some called this a case of implanted memories, but it’s more akin to an alternate timeline invading this one, made even clearer by this week’s Secret Empire and Steve Rogers #16.

The book intermittently features flashbacks of what we thought was a “new” reality, presented as memories of real events wherein Steve was recruited by HYDRA alongside a young Helmut Zemo (seeing them as childhood besties is equal parts discomforting and… sweet?), and for all intents and purposes, these things did actually happen, just not to the Steve Rogers we’ve been reading since 1941. This sort of allows you to see where the “implanted memories” idea stems from. It isn’t quite accurate, because even though it’s treated as brainwashing by every character he comes into contact with, this is now a real, tangible past for Steve Rogers, replacing the one we know and comprising things he actually experienced in another lifetime. The latest “reveal” in question is of how this situation came to be, and hold on to your hats, because it’s a doozie.

In this week’s issues, Hydra Cap “flashbacks” mention an Allied super-weapon numerous times, one that America and those aligned with it will use to win World War II. As of this moment in the “alternate” 1945, Captain America is a double agent, raised by HYDRA before going through the motions of the Cap we know, deemed too weak to be recruited before eventually being picked for the Super Soldier program with the secret intent of creating HYDRA Super Soldiers. It seems like everything is heading towards the inevitable World War II conclusions we’re familiar with, until we learn that HYDRA and the Axis Powers are actually winning the war after having joined up with the Third Reich. The Allies know their defeat is inevitable, so they create the first Cosmic Cube (the aforementioned super-weapon) and use it to write a reality in which they win World War II. Our reality, or rather the reality in which the Marvel Universe takes place.

This isn’t all that dissimilar to what we thought to be the original premise, at least from a logistical standpoint. Hydra Cap was still born & raised in a different reality, and the Captain America we’ve always known did exist. All the stories printed about him since 1941 did take place in the Marvel universe, but as it turns out, he was written into being by the Allies using a Cosmic Cube.

Does this mean the evil Captain America was the “original” Cap, making the one we’re familiar with a derivative aberration? Well, in a way, but keep in mind that this is merely the beginning of the Secret Empire story. Whether The Red Skull used Kobik to create that reality retroactively (making the Cube an Allied invention so as to give sufficient reason for this reality coming into existence) or whether the Hydra Cap reality was “chronologically” first no longer seems to matter, because the relationship between the two is a bit of a cosmic loop. These Cubes write entirely new histories, and when you have one Cube in the “Hydra Cap” reality writing a “Good Cap” reality into existence, as well as what appears to be a Cube in the “Good Cap” reality either creating or returning Steve to the “Hydra Cap” reality, both realities still exist. Both sets of stories actually took place.

That’s a bit of a head trip to be sure, and the best comparison I can draw is the compass from Lost (Richard gave Locke a compass in 2007; Locke subsequently time-travelled to 1954 and gave the compass to Richard, ergo the compass had no definitive point of origin), but perhaps taking a step back from these fictional parameters might help us parse what’s going on. Plenty of folks have levied the “bad fan fiction” label on the Hydra Cap story, and if we look at the very idea of a HYDRA aligned Captain America as a What If? type alternate reality to the Cap we know, things start to make more sense. Only now, whatever walls separate the “fan fiction” Cap from the “real” one (whether in our minds or within the parameters of the comic) are slowly coming down, and the “fan fiction” Cap has, in a way, been placed in the reality we know.

That too is a reductive comparison, and doesn’t take into account HYDRA’s plan for Cap to “return” to his supposedly original state somewhere down the line after living out his life as Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s Captain America, but this is the complex and complicated setup we have so far. Of course, that’s just one element to the story, and while I’m sure clarifying the details will help some folks make up their minds about it (again, not as well as actually reading the comic would), the heated argument over this premise and turning Captain America into a Nazi (debatable) still rages on, and perhaps rightly so. Was this a story that needed to be told?

A lot of arguments come down to Cap’s original creators being Jewish, to which the response is usually one of two things. One, that HYDRA is not actually a Nazi organization. And two, people replying with this panel from the Kirby-drawn Tales of Suspense #67 in 1965:

It’s hard to determine with any kind of certainty what Simon and Kirby would’ve thought. On one hand, Captain America heiling Hitler is all the no-story-is-out-of-bounds proof some people need (as is Captain America #234 from 1979, depicting Cap raising a Nazi Swastika), but on the other, these stories were both limited to one or two issues and featured a brainwashed Steve Rogers who had been made to believe he was a Nazi. While this may negate the mere imagery of a Nazi Captain America being a problem for his creators, it might not be the best 1:1 comparison to a year+ long arc where they were implied to have created a false construct, so to speak. I don’t endorse that view by any stretch, in fact I believe putting words in Kirby and Simon’s mouths either way is disingenuous since they’re both no longer with us, so that’s one argument that’s best left tabled, especially since there’s plenty to talk about with regards to actual story mechanics.

I like Hydra Cap a fair bit, in case that wasn’t clear. I’m also uncomfortable at the very idea of it, and that might be part of why it’s such a worthwhile story. Which is by no means to suggest people who are only uncomfortable are in the wrong somehow; if someone’s perturbed by the idea of a Jewish creation being somewhat Nazi-aligned, then who am I to say otherwise? HYDRA are Nazis in the minds of the collective popular consciousness, and so regardless of their comicbook origins or how they’re treated in the films (or even in this very story), everything from their imagery to their goals screams Nazi-alignment, as if they eventually became both Nazis as well as fictional Nazi stand-ins.

Regardless of how Jewish prisoners were actually killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau (gas was let in through holes in the walls, not through showerheads), the introduction of tourist spray-showers as coolants was a bad idea, because how we mythologize stories is a major part of our culture and history, for better or worse. HYDRA may not be Nazis, but they’re also not NOT Nazis, depending on who you ask. Even within Captain America: Steve Rogers, while “evil” Steve and his handlers reject the rule of the Red Skull, it is still very much the Skull who aligns this age-old organization with Nazism and its methods the same way the Swastika is seen primarily as a Nazi symbol in the western world despite its Hindu and Buddhist origins. But should that stop this story from being told, and HYDRA from being used for its deeper history in addition?

That’s a tough question to answer, and if anything, the very necessity of the story may lie in the discomfort it causes, turning everything we thought we knew about a hopeful American symbol on its head, revealing a rotten, fascist, war-mongering core. It’s bizarre and upsetting to see Captain America run amok on the world’s superheroes, building an impenetrable, planet-wide force field to keep aliens out (Star Lord is understandably against this, as it prevents both travel to and from Earth without Government approval), that too by definitively terrorist means, from suicide missions to hostile takeovers of Government entities. It’s almost as if Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier were being re-created on the page, only this time Captain America is the one leading the charge.

That’s something that can go either way, since Captain America is both a symbol and a living, breathing person. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, comic writer Ed Brubaker turned Steve Rogers into the man most people are familiar with, the authority-questioning idealist seen in the films. To have him question the US Government in the movies makes sense, given that it’s what the Steve we know would most definitely do. But Hydra Cap is not the Steve we know. He wears his face and his conviction, and he continues to carry the symbol of America on his back, but the biggest difference is the nature of his allegiance.

HYDRA’s goals in this story are vague (“taking over the world” and “restoring its former glory” are accurate enough summaries. MHGA, anyone?), but Steve’s perspective on HYDRA is all that needs to be clear. This Captain America is the anti-Captain America. Not just because he’s aligned with Cap’s long-time enemies, but because his allegiance is to ideas, symbols and military entities far more than it is to actual people. He fights for the common good in theory, but to him, peace comes about only through adherence to authority. That’s a fairly literal extrapolation of nationalism, which is clearly the goal of this book to begin with, but the necessity of telling this story in this particular way seems to come down to whether or not Steve Rogers should have been its focus.

Over the last six years, Captain America has risen to global popularity as an anti-authoritarian symbol. That’s a big deal for any character, especially one with “America” in his name and the American flag on his chest (how America sees itself and how the world sees it have always been very different), and when speaking of superheroes as symbols to strive towards, a combination of hope and escapism is usually what comes to mind. Stories of Cap and the likes rebelling against oppressive regimes, even ones that have been deeply rooted in secret, can genuinely inspire people to keep on fighting when times are tough. Hell, the Hunger Games’ Mockingjay and three-fingered salute even became symbols of real-world protest in Thailand, and I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how far and wide the mask from V For Vendetta spread. The symbolism of Captain America representing no one country but rather an American and global ideal for all nations to strive toward is tremendously important, and some might feel taking that away is unfair, even if the original shield is temporarily with Cap’s ally Sam Wilson. I haven’t read Nick Spencer’s Falcon Cap stories so I can’t really comment on them, and I empathize with the folks who feel as if this corruption of Steve Rogers is untimely given the rise of real-world authoritarianism in America and elsewhere. Then again, maybe not all stories need to be inspiring. Maybe some could afford to be more introspective.

Darkening children’s heroes can no doubt leave a sour taste in one’s mouth (just ask the many detractors of Batman v Superman), but the specific circumstances of Cap’s HYDRA allegiance might make this the kind of introspective tale worth telling. Remember, this isn’t our good old boy scout Steve, a thoroughly decent man through and though whose adventures still stand. This Steve Rogers that supposedly “always” existed was a tyrannical nationalist concerned with planting the HYDRA flag on every corner and dictating what it stood for, only he had his history rewritten to make him a more palatable entity. The “secret” half of Secret Empire, wherein confronting the appalling actions of a symbol once believed to have stood for freedom and equality, is a gut-wrenching task, both for Sharon Carter and the Avengers, as well us, the readers, akin to confronting the deeply twisted history of America itself. A history many people were unaware even existed until quite recently.

What you see here is a Nazi rally in 1934. The location is Madison Square Garden, New York City, and it was the first of several such events that would take place over the next five years, filled almost if not entirely to capacity. This is a direct albeit singular example of the parts of U.S. history that Americans are yet to reconcile, among other atrocities like Japanese internment, the slaughter of Native Americans, and the treatment of African Americans both during and post-Slavery. None of this is to suggest that Hydra Cap will confront these specific issues – in fact there doesn’t seem to be any definitive trajectory in sight for the story or character, a source of frustration for many – but the discomfort of having to actually face down the corruption of these parts of American history is not dissimilar to the reaction to seeing Cap having “always been” a part of HYDRA, like a die-hard nationalist finding out their nation isn’t exactly peaches and roses for everyone else.

One option could’ve certainly been to have Cap fight deeply embedded HYDRA agents within the US Government, but that’s something we already saw in The Winter Soldier prior to this past election. Would a new spin on such a story be likely to make folks change their minds about America, presumably right-leaning Cap fans who cling to the old idea of him as symbol of square-jawed American “heroism,” an idea along the lines of planting freedom’s flag by force? If not, then perhaps the Hydra Cap route is more for those of us who are already fans of the new Captain America, the liberal anti-imperialist who can point to voter ID restrictions, transgender bathroom laws or drone strikes with civilian casualties and say “This is bad! This is not what America should stand for!” i.e. the things that most of us already believe. I’d be willing to bet that most modern, left-leaning Cap fans are on the same page as “our” Steve Rogers, fighting for the issues the left holds dear as they enter the realm of contemporary political discourse. But in the HYDRA-as-America metaphor, these are simply replaceable limbs. (“Cut off one limb, two more shall take its place” goes the saying in the comics, as opposed to the movies’ “Cut off one head.”)

None of this would be nearly enough to confront the source of our collective atrocities, in America or otherwise. If anything, Spencer & co. have traded in the more hopeful instruction manual for one that rubs our noses in the worst possible reality, where those that we once saw as heroes reveal secrets that were buried away when history was re-written by the powerful. Not everybody’s going to be a fan of this specific kind of discomfort, but perhaps it’s necessary for a world that can no longer afford to keep cutting off limbs only to have two more replace them. It’s going to take confronting our collective histories to treat the disease and not the symptoms, and part of that is accepting that the symbols we once held dear, be they flags or anthems or the countries they stand for, may have been built on terrible foundations…

To what end, though?

This is the question on my mind, and on the minds of other Cap fans. While assuming the story’s end goal would be getting ahead of the creatives, we’re a full year and a full seventeen issues into this status-quo upending arc without even a clue as to where it’s headed. Will Cap choose the “second” reality, where he was a kind-hearted warrior with the conviction to do what’s right? Will he succumb to his now “original” identity as a long time HYDRA agent? Only time will tell, but I also wouldn’t blame people for getting bored with this premise. I read the most recent fourteen of these seventeen issues this past week, and a concentrated dose of Cap-related discomfort did me wonders. Few comics challenge our biases and beliefs in this specific way, and despite my major political disagreements with writer Nick Spencer (from his nonsense “SJW” villains in the Falcon Cap comics, to his disconcertingly anti-interventionist stance on dealing with fascist power structures), I am, perhaps to my own surprise, on board with this story. But then again, I also haven’t been an active participant for the last ten straight months, so I can’t speak to that prolonged exposure to an unpalatable Steve Rogers, one who thus far has shown absolutely no signs of the Steve Rogers we know and love, something that may have made for a more compelling story if we were reminded who or what is at stake. As of right now, it’s a challenging story that meanders.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish the whole thing was handled better, at least in a public sense. While I feel for Spencer receiving a barrage of abuse and threatening messages, I’m also not a fan of the dismissive tone he takes with fans who might want to engage critically. That seems separable from the story itself to me, though not entirely of course. BMD contributor Anthony Oliviera’s Twitter exchange with Spencer touches on this odd dichotomy, wherein the comic is written from the perspective of someone who sees Captain America primarily within his original context, i.e. an extension of the U.S. Government, thus making HYDRA Cap less an examination of personal ideals and more about the nature of policy. It’s not an unfair conclusion, but it also yields the realization that this story could also be told without superheroes, thus negating the very place of extra-legal preventive action against fascism to begin with. So while I’m enjoying Hydra Cap well more than I expected, I have to wonder: who is this really for? Outside of preparing us for the challenge of self-examination, something that might not need a full year of buildup, whose convictions are being tested here? Ours? Captain America’s? Anyone's? I’m not sure, but hopefully that question will be answered.

At the end of the day, what one gets out of a story such as this is dependent on many factors (primarily, having read the actual story!), but the conversation it yields about symbols and their appropriation within stories is fascinating. Captain America: Steve Rogers and Secret Empire shift the needle away from using Cap as a symbol of justice and towards using him as a means to reveal that the nature of said “justice” could very well be corrupt to begin with. That’s something we need to be prepared to confront. Disliking Hydra Cap doesn’t necessarily mean one isn’t prepared to introspect (it might, for some), and whether or not one enjoys the corruption of such a symbol is another matter entirely – lord knows we have our fair share of superheroes who no longer seem hopeful – but if there’s to be any kind of productive discourse about Captain America, or more importantly, America itself, it’s vital that we’re on the same page.

We can’t make any kind of progress until we’re having the same conversation.

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